As the international manhunt for alleged NSA leaker Edward Snowden spanned continents on Sunday, U.S. officials struggled to explain how the 30-year-old former intelligence contractor slipped an extradition request, reportedly to seek asylum in Ecuador.
“The U.S. is disappointed and disagrees with the determination by Hong Kong authorities not to honor the U.S. request for the arrest of the fugitive, Edward J. Snowden,” a Department of Justice spokesperson said on Sunday evening.
Authorities in Hong Kong, where Snowden had been hiding out since he leaked documents on NSA surveillance programs to media outlets, said on Sunday that they found the extradition request insufficient, a finding a Department of Justice spokesperson said the U.S. finds “particularly troubling.”
American officials detailed an elongated back-and-forth with authorities in Hong Kong, beginning on June 10, when officials learned Snowden was hiding out there. Officials from the Department of Justice, the State Department and the FBI have “repeatedly” been in contact with their counterparts, according to officials.
A senior Administration official delivered a terse statement to Hong Kong on Saturday about Snowden, saying, “If Hong Kong doesn’t act soon, it will complicate our bilateral relations and raise questions about Hong Kong’s commitment to the rule of law.”
According to the Department of Justice, Snowden was charged on June 14 in a Virginia federal court with unauthorized disclosure of national-defense information, unauthorized disclosure of classified communication intelligence and theft of government property. A warrant for his arrest was issued that day.
U.S. officials requested Snowden’s extradition from Hong Kong on June 15. They maintain that the request was complete and included all information needed to arrest and extradite Snowden to the U.S.
Two days later, Hong Kong officials acknowledged the request, according to the Department of Justice, and, despite multiple U.S. inquiries, did not ask for any more information about the Snowden case.
“The request for the fugitive’s arrest for purposes of his extradition complied with all of the requirements of the U.S.–Hong Kong Surrender Agreement,” the DOJ spokesperson said. “At no point, in all of our discussions through Friday, did the authorities in Hong Kong raise any issues regarding the sufficiency of the U.S.’s provisional arrest request. In light of this, we find their decision to be particularly troubling.”
On June 19 (or June 20 in Hong Kong), Attorney General Eric Holder called Hong Kong Secretary for Justice Rimsky Yuen and encouraged him to comply with the U.S. request for Snowden’s extradition.
A day later, Hong Kong authorities requested additional information about the U.S. charges and the evidence against Snowden.
U.S. authorities were in the process of responding to the request when Hong Kong authorities allowed Snowden to fly to Moscow on Sunday. Later that day, U.S. officials were notified that their request for Snowden’s extradition was found insufficient.
Snowden is believed to remain in Moscow where he is awaiting a flight to Cuba, as he requests asylum in Ecuador.
U.S. officials questioned Snowden’s motives and travel to countries with rough, if any, ties to the U.S. government, with one senior Administration official saying it may betray a motive to harm national security.
“Mr. Snowden’s claim that he is focused on supporting transparency, freedom of the press and protection of individual rights and democracy is belied by the protectors he has potentially chosen: China, Russia, Cuba, Venezuela and Ecuador,” the official said. “His failure to criticize these regimes suggests that his true motive throughout has been to injure the national security of the U.S., not to advance Internet freedom and free speech.”
Snowden’s passport has been revoked, and according to State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki, he should not be allowed to travel except to return to the U.S.
“As is routine and consistent with U.S. regulations, persons with felony arrest warrants are subject to having their passport revoked,” Psaki said in a statement on Sunday. “Such a revocation does not affect citizenship status. Persons wanted on felony charges, such as Mr. Snowden, should not be allowed to proceed in any further international travel, other than is necessary to return him to the United States.”
But there has been no indication from Moscow that they will honor the U.S. request, as the round-the-world manhunt continues.
UPDATE: Monday June 24, 12:05 AM:
National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden issued a strongly worded statement early on Monday criticizing Hong Kong authorities as well as the Chinese government for allowing Snowden to flee the country. Additionally, Hayden invoked recent U.S.-Russian cooperation on security issues to encourage the Russian government to detain and extradite Snowden.
The full statement:
We are disappointed by the decision of the authorities in Hong Kong to permit Mr. Snowden to flee despite the legally valid U.S. request to arrest him for purposes of his extradition under the U.S.-Hong Kong Surrender Agreement. We have registered our strong objections to the authorities in Hong Kong as well as to the Chinese government through diplomatic channels and noted that such behavior is detrimental to U.S.-Hong Kong and U.S.-China bilateral relations.
We now understand Mr. Snowden is on Russian soil. Given our intensified cooperation after the Boston marathon bombings and our history of working with Russia on law enforcement matters — including returning numerous high level criminals back to Russia at the request of the Russian government — we expect the Russian Government to look at all options available to expel Mr. Snowden back to the U.S. to face justice for the crimes with which he is charged.